Low-income and geographically disadvantaged nations must gain from Asia-Pacific trade and investment boom, ESCAP tells regional policy makers forum

The least developed, as well as geographically disadvantaged Asia-Pacific nations need support to overcome their marginalization in the region’s booming trade and investment growth, the United Nations told a biannual forum of policy makers from the region here today.

Government Ministers, senior officials and other stakeholders from over 30 Asia-Pacific countries are meeting from 27 to 29 July at the Committee on Trade and Investment convened by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) to discuss policy options to ensure the region gains from emerging trade and investment opportunities and sustains its lead role in the global economic recovery.

Opening the Committee session, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP, Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, highlighted Asia-Pacific exports bounced back strongly in 2010 after negative growth a year earlier and were estimated at US$5.5 trillion last year, compared to US$5.3 trillion in 2008. Developing Asian countries have also led the recovery in the trade in services and remain a favoured destination for foreign direct investment.

“Let me touch upon the darker side of this reality now. The region’s least developed countries, landlocked countries and small Pacific islands continue to be marginalized from benefiting from trade and investment opportunities,” the ESCAP chief observed. “Their effective integration into the regional economy and global economy still remains elusive.”

Even though most developed countries have nearly eliminated tariffs on imports from least developed countries (LDCs), complex trade rules, non-tariff barriers and a variety of “murky protectionist” measures continue to keep Asia-Pacific LDC exports out of developed world markets.

This concern was shared by H.E. Mr. Muhammad Faruk Khan, Minister of Commerce of Bangladesh, one of the 14 Asia-Pacific LDCs, and H.E. Mr. Sarath Amunugama, Senior Minister for International Monetary Cooperation, Sri Lanka, who along with Mr. Yanyong Phuangrach, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Commerce, Thailand, addressed the Committee’s opening ceremony.

The Bangladesh Minister noted that LDCs have been adversely affected by protectionist measures in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. “We must remember that this rising protectionism not only harms the economic performance of the LDCs, but also jeopardized their limited capacity to achieve the millennium development goals (MDGs),” he added, urging the ESCAP Committee to “come up with an effective plan to enhance deeper regional cooperation.

In his statement to the Committee, H.E. Mr. Amunugama said, “It must be made clear that while fast growing economies like China and India are global and regional leaders, there are many lagging economies also in our region which for many structural and other reasons, are still displaying sluggish growth.” Noting that there was “a worrying pattern of developed country economies being unable to significantly stimulate growth which could lead to a further call for protectionism,” the Sri Lanka Minister emphasized that “new markets have to be found within our huge populations and within the region.”

In his statement to the Committee, Mr. Phuangrach emphasized that the Asia-Pacific region must look to itself to boost trade and investment. “The Asia-Pacific nations must focus more on building our domestic markets and creating intra-regional demands to complement our external trade and investment relations.”

ESCAP chief Dr. Heyzer too emphasized the immense potential for trade among Asia-Pacific countries with ESCAP estimates showing that only half of Asia-Pacific import demand is met from within the region, a key messages of the annual ESCAP Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Report 2011 which was later officially launched by Dr. Heyzer. Echoing this sentiment, senior government officials voiced their concern that myriad forms of procedural barriers are preventing intra-regional trade. Trade facilitation was identified as a crucial area of intervention for realizing the goal of deeper regional integration in trade and investment.

The three-day session is a key event during the 25 to 29 July Trade and Investment Week organized by ESCAP’s Trade and Investment Division.